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Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Publish a New Book of Short Stories about the Long War

"There were a bunch of guys like me at Walter Reed—severe burn cases, the faceless. You would think we would have hung out together, but we avoided it as much as possible" -- from a powerful fictional short story.

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He had been raised in a foster home, surrounded by people he called his brothers and sisters, some black, some white. The way he talked about it, it had been rough, and he still hadn’t rid himself of the bad habit that had resurfaced way back in the first week of our deployment: the liberal use of the n-word. The drill sergeants had broken him of this unfortunate tic in basic, but it had reared its ugly head again in Iraq and never gone away.

Sometimes, if we were in a public place, I would have to elbow him to silence his incessant rants about “that nigga that stole that fucking bitch and my kid.” The thing was, his wife’s new boyfriend wasn’t black. Sleed wasn’t a racist. He used the slur at random, sometimes affectionately, sometimes reproachfully, but never in reference to skin tone. Trouble was other people didn’t know that.

He was one of those larger-than-life personalities, able to pull you out of your troubles and into his. Christmas morning, 2004, the bombed-out UN compound in Baghdad. In the muddy field on the other side of the wall, an Iraqi boy called up to my tower: “Mistah, Mistah, Merry Christmas! Chocalaté?”

Eight hours of soft and steady rain falling from a grey sky, soaking our body armor and black fleece, sucking the heat from our core. Along with myself, Sleed and the other members of 3rd Platoon pulled guard in the towers and bunkers encircling the UN. We were cold and wet on Christmas; engaged in the pointless activity of guarding an abandoned complex of buildings. Morale was especially low.

We carried walkabout radios, and Sleed came over the net thirty minutes into the miserable shift. He proceeded to tell jokes about our mothers for the better part of an hour, one after the other, a ceaseless string of insult: “Hey, Tower Seven, yo’ momma so fat, she have to put on lipstick with a paint roller”; “Front Gate, yo’ momma so stupid, when yo’ daddy said it was chilly outside, she ran out with a spoon”; “ . . . so poor, she hangs the toilet paper up to dry”; “ . . . so greasy, she sweats Crisco”; “ . . . head so small, she got her ear pierced and died”; “ . . . so nasty, she have to creep up on bathwater.” And once he had insulted all our mothers and exhausted his extensive repertoire, someone else came over the net and took up the banner. Trifling, moronic, and juvenile, yes, but in this way 3rd Platoon passed Christmas 2004.

Never at a loss for words, he was now unusually quiet as we traveled due north for a few miles before merging onto the Beltway. We passed out of DC proper and into Maryland,taking I-270. The scenery changed from urban to suburban. Million-dollar McMansions, quarter-million-dollar condos, strip malls, golf courses, and commercial parks lined the highway. Traffic lightened up—the cars all headed the other way, into Washington. Compared to Baghdad, everything looked so green. The vividness of it was like being on a mild dose of psychedelics, all the time.

Readjusting my sensibilities was a slow process, and I was also just getting used to not having my weapon with me. Call it “phantom gun syndrome.” Like an amputee who still feels his limb tickle, I would find myself reaching down my right side, searching for the M4 carbine that should have been slung on my shoulder. I missed its reassuring heft, the way the charging handle dug into my hipbone.

We traveled for an hour. When we hit the clustered spires of Frederick, my old hometown, we switched onto US-15. Francis Scott Key’s Frederick. John Whittier’s. Lee’s, Grant’s.Located on the cusp of a pass through the Appalachians, the town had changed hands several times during the Civil War. Each time, the citizenry had filled the streets to cheer whichever conquering army happened to be marching through. This fact had always struck me as telling. Even during our most brutal, existential war, most Americans didn’t care enough to stick their necks out for the cause.

We drove through the north side of town. I watched familiar scenes through the glare of my window seat: the ice rink where I had taken my first date and played countless games of hockey in high school, my favorite used bookshop, the liquor store owned by the Pakistanis who never carded. I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in a passing SUV. From a distance, I didn’t look half-bad. The only thing off was the size of my head: swollen, as if it had been stung by a thousand bees.

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